More Censorship

Censorship has won another small but significant victory in the granting of an injunction which prevented a programme being shown on TV last month. The subject of the programme, the American pop-artist and film-maker Andy Warhol, is unimportant — it may well have represented the title of one of Warhol’s films, Trash. What does matter is that whatever it had to show or say was, at a few hours’ notice, suppressed: the populace was not to be exposed to unorthodox thought.


The facts of the case were curious. The applicant for the injunction, Ross McWhirter, was able to obtain a hearing and judgement almost immediately. For once, “the law’s delays” were apparently suspended; a facility to be envied by anyone who has spent the usual months waiting for satisfaction from the courts. The allegedly offensive programme was not seen by anyone responsible for its suppression. McWhirter brought his action, and the judges gave their decision, on the basis of accounts in the preceding Sunday’s papers.


This in itself shows the dishonesty of one of the strongest claims of advocates of more censorship. A television film, or even one at the cinema, can, they insist, be seen inadvertently by children or the easily embarrassed. When its contents have been described and publicized, however, it becomes virtually impossible for anyone to watch except by choice. So the suppressive brigade have, as was thought, never meant what their “humane” arguments say. Their position is simple. They want nobody to see what they disapprove of (except themselves, by implication immune from the crudeness and susceptibility of the rest of us).


There is nothing exceptional about people wanting to ban what they dislike: “it oughter be stopped” is a common cry in innumerable contexts. In most cases the plea is recognizably hopeless, squashed by the status quo. But in the fields of politics, sex and — to a lesser extent — religion, the status quo is all ears. Here, the would-be censors are its aides, drawing attention to threats to the stability of society. “Society” means, of course, the capitalist system.


It can be argued that capitalism does not need the traditional family and conventional morality today. It has been dependent on them too long, however, for most of its supporters to be willing to discard them. The view the majority take, therefore, is the one expressed by a well-known entertainer in a libel action some years ago. Asked to comment on homosexuality, he said he believed it was “subversive of the family”, and that is how large numbers of people see any departure from established morality. What is meant is not the family as a human entity, but the family as a support of capitalist society.


None of this is to say that censorship is a conspiracy. It can be; but its normal motive is belief that the “accepted” order is the only feasible one. Indeed, the tightest bondage is round those who profess to be critical of society but think social restraints are necessary: capitalism has them truly by the short hairs. Few people saw anything wrong with President Nixon’s remark, in rejecting the report of the US Commission on Pornography, that since good books elevate the mind bad ones must lower it.


The presumption made invokes the old question: “Which way is up?” Elevate means rouse, uplift, put higher. The high thoughts, in Nixon’s estimation, would undoubtedly be ones leading to humility, patriotism, diligence, and the ideals in general of the society he represents. The statement in fact is like a coat with sleeves turned inside-out. The inner meaning is that if a book is seen or presumed to “elevate”, in those terms, it is in the running for being “good”. If it points the other way, it must be “bad”.


What nonsense, one might say: except that it is pernicious nonsense. Idiot arguments and humbug conceal the fact that censorship of anything means the suppression of knowledge and experience. Ross McWhirter’s action, was presented as moral; the truth is that it was anti-social.


Robert Barltrop